Reading round-up: late October

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read recently:

Janice Galloway, The Trick Is To keep Breathing (1989)

I enjoyed reading a collection of Janice Galloway’s short stories a few years back, and so was pleased when my book group selected her first novel for this month (as luck would have it, I couldn’t then make the meeting – bah!). It’s the story of Joy Stone, who is sent into a spiral of depression by events that we only gradually piece together as we follow her through daily life and a stint in hospital. Galloway’s novel is written as a collage of documents, from diary entries to magazine snippets to marginal notes – a technique that mirrors the fragmentation of its protagonist. I think it’s a shame that this book seems not to have made as many waves in its day as (say) The Wasp Factory did, because Galloway deserves to read much more widely than she is.

Paul Ewen, Francis Plug: How To Be a Public Author (2014)

The latest book from Galley Beggar Press is ‘written’ by the aspiring author Francis Plug, who documents his meetings with winners of the Booker Prize. Paul Ewen gets the voice of his narrator just right: earnest, and trying just that little bit too hard; whether or not that becomes annoying is probably down to the individual reader. Although Francis Plug starts off as simply amusing, as the novel progresses we start to see the desperation that lies underneath the character’s facade. There’s something of Graham Underhill about Plug; and, like Nat Segnit’s book, there’s an underlying weight and melancholy that leads to a tragicomic ending.

SchumacherJulie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (2014)

And here’s another novel about someone in the literary world which has a bitter twist beneath its comic surface. It’s the collected correspondence of Jason Filger, a professor of creative writing and literature, who writes copious letters of recommendation for his students (on paper, through the mail) and finds himself feeling increasingly out of step with the world around him. Filger’s letters reveal the absurdities of his world: students having to apply for ever more menial jobs; his department being squeezed out by those of more lucrative subjects; his own obsession with championing  work of one particular student while others find that elusive success. Dear Committee Members takes a particularly sharp and bracing turn towards the end, which makes you see the book in a new light. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Julie Schumacher’s work in the future.

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

A collection of short stories (published by Freight Books) which, the author says, are 68% true and 32% fictional – though only she knows which is which. Anneliese Mackintosh takes us through various events in her alter ego Gretchen’s life – a precarious family life in childhood; discovery and calamity at university; grief, happiness and more in adulthood. There’s a wonderful range of style and tone in Mackintosh’s stories; it seems beside the point to single out particular pieces, when it’s the totality of Any Other Mouth which really impresses. The intensity that Mackintosh achieves across the whole collection is really quite something.

Slavoj Žižek and Srećko Horvat, What Does Europe Want? (2013)

I read this book (published by Istros Books, who specialise in works from South East Europe) following my call on Twitter for recommended essay collections. It’s one of those occasions where the subject is not a natural fit for me – I’ll be upfront in saying that I’m not into politics and don’t know that much about it – but I read What Does Europe Want? out of curiosity and will find some way to respond to it.  Žižek and Horvat are philosophers from Slovenia and Croatia respectively; in these essays, they explore the present and possible future of Europe and the EU. All I can really say is that I appreciated the authors’ style, and found plenty to think about.

Critchley

Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre (2014)

This is the second title from Fitzcarraldo Editions (following Zone), a short piece that blurs the line between autobiographical essay and fiction. Philosopher Simon Critchley describes how he was sent boxes of unpublished papers belonging to his old friend and teacher, the French philosopher Michel Haar, who had recently died. Amongst the various documents, Critchley found writings on the Renaissance memory theatre: a created space containing images meant to represent all knowledge. He also found an astrological chart which appeared to foretell his own death – which led him to an inevitable conclusion. Critchley’s book reflects on memory, permanence and obsession; and becomes ever more intriguing as the relative security of the essay form gives way to the uncertainty of fiction.

Strange Horizons review: Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf

WaldorfI have a new review up at Strange Horizons, looking at Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf (published by Turtle Point Press). The book is a collection of eleven linked (or fractured) short stories revolving around the fictitious Bearden County, NY, where something strange has happened to the laws of nature. I won’t say more: I’ll just invite you to check out the full review here.

No would also be a good time to mention that Strange Horizons’ annual fund drive is currently under way; if you like what they do, why not consider making a donation? You might even win a prize in their raffle.

We Love This Book reviews: Janina Matthewson and Stefanie de Velasco

Another pair of my recent reviews from We Love This Book:

Janina Matthewson, Of Things Gone Astray (2014)

MatthewsonOne day, people start to lose things. Reclusive old Mrs Featherby’s front wall disappears without warning. Robert loses his job in the most literal sense, as he discovers that his office building is no longer where it used to be. The keys are gone from Marcus’s piano, and he has no idea what else to play. These and other characters are faced with a strange new world, and not all of them will be able to adjust.
Of Things Gone Astray may be Janina Matthewson’s first novel, but it marks her out as a writer to follow. There’s a wonderful, dream-like quality to Matthewson’s prose which binds together the most outlandish events and the emotional realities that they come to represent. The character Delia loses her sense of direction: at first, it seems she just can’t find her way around; but then we see that she abandoned her studies, and now has nowhere to go. Young Jake receives no good wishes from his father on his birthday – but the rift between the two goes much deeper than that.
So you can see the strange happenings in Of Things Gone Astray as reflecting the emotional states of its characters. But what rounds Matthewson’s novel out is that it can’t be reduced to a series of metaphors. Reality, fantasy and imagery intermingle to create a beautiful whole.
Stefanie de Velasco, Tiger Milk (2013)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2014)
De VelascoStefanie de Velasco’s first novel is a tale of two girls caught between adolescence and adulthood.
Nini and Jameelah are two 14-year-olds living in Berlin. Their lives are not plain sailing – Jameelah doesn’t know whether her family will shortly be deported back to Iraq, and Nini’s mother spends much of her time withdrawn into herself on the sofa – but the freedom of summer beckons. Drink of the season is tiger milk, the girls’ own concoction of chocolate milk, fruit juice and brandy. This cocktail represents Nini’s and Jameelah’s ambivalence towards the adult world: they want some of its attractions – in particular, to lose their virginity – but they also want to stay teenagers. Then tension between these opposing desires is central to the novel.
Tiger Milk never stands still: there’s always a new development, and Nini as first-person narrator will merrily skip over events if she wants, without waiting for the reader to catch up. Tim Mohr’s translation from the original German also captures this restless energy, the busy speech and constant action. De Velasco captures the sense of adolescence as a time of change and discovery: when you’re exploring the limits of yourself and the world around you, and seeing others move in both expected and unexpected directions. There’s also the sense of change that you didn’t see coming, as one period of life turns abruptly into the next, however much that summer seemed endless.

Elsewhere: Shiny New Books issue 3 and the Strange Horizons book club

News about some external stuff today. There’s a new issue of Shiny New Books out, where you’ll find a couple of pieces by me. One is a celebration of the short story, with a few recommended story collections. The other is a review of Mark Watson’s new novel Hotel Alpha, which chronicles forty years in the life of a hotel and its people, and comes with a hundred bonus short stories online – one of which is also up at SNB.

Then there’s something new over at Strange Horizons: a monthly round-table book club. Each month, a panel of participants will discuss a particular title, with the opportunity for others to contribute in the comments. I’m involved in two of the initial instalments: later this month, I’ll be taking part in the discussion on Patricia A. McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow; then I’ll be moderating the December panel on Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. The other discussions coming up concern Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman (November) and Rachel Pollack’s Unquenchable Fire (January). I’m really excited by the book club, which is planned to be a regular feature; I hope you’ll take a look and perhaps join in.

The shape of language and the spectre of history: Paul Kingsnorth and Mathias Enard

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (2014)
Mathias Enard, Zone (2008)
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (2010)

It often strikes me that, in England at least, we tend to treat history as safe and unproblematic – a source of colourful stories, perhaps; but not necessarily something that needs to be thought about much in order for us to engage with it. 1066, for example, is probably the most famous date in English history; our perception of it is likely to be dominated by a few names and images that we think we know – William the Conqueror; the Bayeux Tapestry; King Harold with an arrow in his eye. But how many of us really think about this as a lived moment in time?

KingsnorthThat’s a central issue in Paul Kingsnorth’s Booker-longlisted debut novel The Wake, which is narrated by one Buccmaster of Holland, a Lincolnshire freeman who first knows that ‘there is sum thing cuman’ when strange portents are seen in the sky. News of an invasion from France gradually arrives; twice, Buccmaster’s sons go away to fight – and the second time, they do not return. When Buccmaster’s house is later burned down with his wife inside, he forms a small band of fighters dedicated to resisting Norman rule.

As a plot summary, that may not sound particularly remarkable; but The Wake is transfigured through its use of language. Kingsnorth has written his novel in what he calls a ‘shadow tongue’, a version of Old English which has been tweaked to make it comprehensible to modern readers. ‘Comprehensible’ is relative, of course; here, for example, is how the novel begins:

the night was clere though i slept I seen it. though I slept I seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when I gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still

So let’s be clear that, like The Luminaries and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing before it, The Wake is a novel that demands total engagement from the reader, because it is uncompromising in the vision of the world that it presents. But (again, as with those two earlier books) give The Wake space and time and it will reveal its aesthetic logic (there is a partial glossary at the back, but I managed well enough without it). Kingsnorth’s language makes his past England an alien place, brings us a character whose thought processes are likely different from our own, and makes us confront that difference. It’s a fine  example of what I wrote about for Fiction Uncovered the other day, of language shaping the world of the novel.

It is also worth noting that, like The Luminaries, Kingsnorth’s novel has an acute sense of its own artifice. As the author notes in his afterword, his shadow tongue never existed; so, in a fundamental sense, the world it depicts never existed, either. What is the value of using a specifically artificial form of English? I would say that it helps to keep the past an open question: read in Old English or modern English, we might know too easily where we were (be it somewhere familiar or unfamiliar). With the shadow tongue, the door is opened just enough for us to see glimpses of understanding amidst the strangeness; we don’t know where we are, and this keeps the world of The Wake alive.

So too does Kingsnorth’s use of perception. Buccmaster frequently has visions of (and conversations with) Welland the Smith, and it remains ambiguous as to what these actually are. Kingsnorth takes his novel in directions that we may not expect of historical fiction, all the while making clear that there’s no real reason to have those expectations in the first place. Even though we may know how the story of the Norman invasion of England ends, we don’t know how the story of The Wake ends – and that’s because Kingsnorth creates the sense of a historical moment that’s alive on its own terms, where the future can still be contested.

***

Enard

Where we might say that The Wake depicts a past haunted by the spectre of the future, Mathias Enard’s Zone shows a present suffused with the ghosts of history. The novel revolves around Francis Mirković, once a mercenary, now an agent of the French secret service. For fifteen years, he has worked in the lands around the Mediterranean – a region he calls ‘the Zone’ – being involved in violence there as well as gathering information on it. Now, he is bringing that life to an end, as he takes a briefcase filled with intelligence from Milan to Rome, with the intention of selling it to the Vatican. We join him on his train journey, as he reflects on his own past and that of the Zone.

Each chapter of Mirković’s thoughts is presented as a pages-long sentence fragment (a superb feat of translation from Charlotte Mandell). The best way I found to read this was simply to jump in and let it carry me forward; there is a constant, driving momentum and rhythm to the book, like the motion of Mirković’s train. But, though the train may travel inexorably on, the novel’s overall sense is of an unending cycle, as conflicts recur throughout history, and the countries of the Zone remain scarred by the violence they have witnessed.

There’s also a thread running through Zone which concerns how lives may become reduced to memory, a text. Mirković carries the lives of war criminals and others in his briefcase; he himself has lived under several aliases, which he now intends to put away. Then there are the three chapters which are taken from the (fictitious) novel that Mirković occasionally reads while on the train. These tell of a Palestinian resistance fighter named Intissar, and are conventional in form and punctuation. Intissar’s story is serious and powerful; so it’s jarring indeed to return from her chapters to Mirković, and find him enjoying her tale as a thrilling adventure. (Ah, but isn’t that the sort of thing we do all the time as readers?) And, of course, Mirković himself is only a figure in the text of Enard’s novel… If The Wake gives a sense of deep vitality to a moment in history, Zone shows how easily history can be reduced to paper.

***

Finally, a note on the publication of these books. The Wake was crowdfunded through Unbound; having been published in the US by Open Letter Books, Zone is now the launch title of the UK small press Fitzcarraldo Editions – and I can scarcely think of a bolder statement for a new publisher to make. Publishing may be in a precarious position right now, but in many respects this is also a golden age for adventurous readers. And, while interesting books are certainly still being released by the major houses, smaller publishers play a vital role in bringing such books to our attention. I’m glad that there are novels like The Wake and Zone in the world, and that there are people who believe in them so strongly. They are right to do so.

Links

New Fiction Uncovered column: The Language of Fiction

This is it: my fourth and final column as guest editor of Fiction Uncovered. For this article, I decided to write about how tone and style can shape the world of a piece of fiction. I think it’s all to easy to overlook language and prose when reading and thinking about fiction (certainly I’ve overlooked them in the past) – when, actually, they’re fundamental to what fiction is. So I’ve chosen four novels with a distinctive use of style, and looked at what they do and how.

The new column is here, and you can find all of my reviews and columns for Fiction Uncovered here. And, if you want to read more from me on the books mentioned in the column, step this way:

Finally, I’d like to thank Fiction Uncovered for inviting me to be guest editor, and for hosting me this last month. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I can only hope that others have found my columns interesting, and maybe even discovered a few new books that they’d like to read.

New Fiction Uncovered column: three Welsh novels in translation

For my third Fiction Uncovered guest column, I wanted to write about fiction in translation. I’ve reviewed three novels translated from Welsh, each of which won the Wales Book of the Year award:

  • Martha, Jack & Shanco by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies)
  • The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (translated by Lloyd Jones)
  • Faith, Hope & Love by Llwyd Owen (translated by the author)

I didn’t really have a greater rationale for choosing those specific books, but actually I think they fit together quite well as a set of novels that deal with the effect of place on character. And they’re all worth reading in their own right.

You can read my new column here, and find links to the previous ones here.